Sunday, November 27, 2016

Lake of Dracula (1971)

Original title: Noroi no yakata: Chi o suu me

aka Bloodthirsty Eyes

Ever since she was small, Akiko (Midori Fujita) has had a terrible recurring nightmare. In her dream she runs after her little dog towards a creepy western style mansion. Inside the building, she finds a beautiful dead woman at a piano, and is attacked by a blue-faced man (Shin Kishida) in black with blood on his face, very sharp teeth and yellow eyes she can’t forget.

Now, more than fifteen years later, Akiko tries to exorcise the dream by using her holidays in a nice modern house close to a pleasant looking lake to turn it into a painting. Alas, that dream will turn out to be a repressed memory once the mandatory amount of strange stuff begins to happen around Akiko.

A coffin is loaded off at the close-by tourist centre (hut), and soon, the friendly old guy working there is turning into a blue-faced somewhat rapey Renfield, Akiko’s sister Natsuko (Sanae Emi) starts acting like different person, and Akiko’s dog is murdered. Either our heroine is losing it, or some evil from her past has come to get her. Fortunately, her boyfriend, the doctor Takashi (Choei Takahashi) is one of those rare horror movie boyfriends who actually listen when their girlfriends are starting to tell strange stories, so at least, she doesn’t have to fight against the vampire who wants to make her his bride alone. Which is a good thing, what with her not being much good at the whole vampire fighting business.

The second film in Toho’s and director Michio Yamamoto’s western vampire non-trilogy (sometimes also known as the “Bloodthirsty Trilogy” because that word is in each of the Japanese titles) is the weakest of the three. There are a couple of reasons for that: the pacing is just a tad too slow even for a gothically inclined horror film of the early 70s, the plot is not terribly eventful and the general set-up is just not quite as interesting as in the other films of the trilogy.

It’s still a nice example of gothic horror from Japan, mind you. I particularly enjoy how Yamamoto mixes a mostly modern setting with very classical gothic horror patterns, with a nervous and appropriately beautiful heroine who could have stepped right out of the pages of a gothic horror revival novel stumbling panicked through a world that very suddenly and quite literally turns into a nightmare for her, and where the people closest to her apart from her boyfriend turn into evil mirror images of themselves.

The film seems more interested in the personality changes in the people under the vampire’s spell than in the more typical sexual angle (which is there but not really a point of emphasis – there’s not even the scene of undead Natsuko trying to seduce Takashi you’d expect, particularly since the film appears to set it up a little earlier). The film’s not so much afraid of foreigners stealing a gentleman’s wife or of anyone getting sexually liberated than of the people around you stopping to repress their worst sides, sex apparently not falling under the description of bad for once in a horror film. It’s an interesting choice I wish the film had done a little more with, but it’s certainly there, and it plays nicely with Akiko’s fear of her reality turning into her recurring nightmare.

Interestingly enough, the film never actually threatens this kind of change for Takashi, nor does it ever go down the route of having him think Akiko is crazy. In fact, the guy generally seems to assume his girlfriend is just as strong and competent as he is – though she alas really isn’t – and treats her accordingly; not exactly a concept of relationships one encounters often in Japanese movies of this era, and it’s certainly welcome, though I rather wish the heroine treated this way were actually a bit a more proactive.

On the visual level, I don’t find Lake quite as strong as The Vampire Doll but there are still quite a few moody scenes, most of them hard-won out of shooting and lighting modern (by the standards of the early 70s) interiors as if they were part of an old crumpled castle. At times, the film also manages to mirror Akiko’s panic in her surroundings, becoming dream-like more literally than we use that word normally. Even the film’s flatter moments demonstrate the usual high technical standard of Japanese genre film of this time.

So, while I’m not as crazy about Lake of Dracula as I am about The Vampire Doll, I still think it’s a fine example of cultural appropriation doing its good work.

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